Playing Dungeons & Dragons With Mormons

Games have a way of bringing people together across cultural lines.

Photo by Shane Scarbrough on Unsplash

It was junior year, a typical draggy afternoon when one of my geek friends made an abrupt appearance between classes. “You know the new kids? One of them just asked me if I play Dungeons & Dragons.”

That was a bit odd. This was after the millennium, well past the original heyday of roleplaying — a time when only the biggest of dorks still partook. And of my little circle, the new kid had chosen to ask the one among us who least fit the geek stereotype. I can’t imagine why anyone would assume that a guy with a linebacker’s build would be into pretend magic but, in this case, that assumption was right.

“So what did you tell him?” I said.

“I said yes, and he invited me to a game,” he said. “You’re coming, right? You won’t have to run this one.”

It was an interesting offer. I was the designated Dungeon Master for our group, meaning that I was the only one with the traits to do it — a knack for on-the-fly storytelling, an autism-driven gift for mental math, and a lack of concern over how I wasted my free time. I had a stack of rather pricey graph paper in a tray on my desk and a collection of weird old supplements in my bookshelf and I was not afraid to make use of either. It was a comfortable role for me, one I understood, but even then I knew the merits of breaking out of a habit.

“All right,” I said. “I’ll work up a character this afternoon.”

This was going to be the first time I’d even sat on the other side of the master’s screen, and something told me I was going to be pulling the party’s fat out of the fire. What was their weakness? Based on previous campaigns, it was a habit of saying and doing the wrong thing and getting into trouble before even reaching the dungeon. My role was going to be mediator, and I built a character for it: A twig-armed, snake-tongued elven bard whose skill set was built around preventing anyone else from doing anything too stupid and mitigating the harm when they did.

Visiting a new friend’s house is something of a revelation for a lot of American kids. It’s how we learn about people in different circumstances, whose ways of living are different and new. Whereas most kids worldwide play with children from families that resemble their own, back in the States you can never quite be sure what you’re going to find when you open that door for the first time.

To that point, I’d been lucky enough to have never encountered any genuine madness, but as I crammed myself into the cluttered backseat of my friend’s Nova (this was my position as well — no one else was thin enough to manage it), I had to at least wonder if my luck was going to hold. I knew nothing about these people, who were very recent arrivals to our tiny western Kansas town. A few families had come in at the same time, and I really hadn’t even met the kids except in passing.

As we entered the house, though, it seemed like we were winning the new family lottery. They were nice people if very slightly awkward, and after the obligatory small talk we were headed downstairs (shocking, I know, playing D&D in the basement). But in that few minutes, as I stood in a domain where I didn’t quite belong, I had time to take in the detail of my surroundings. It’s what I do when I’m uncomfortable — ignore the people and read the room. Check out the lay of the land, the arrangement of the furniture, their reading material, their family photos.

And the clues came together in my head, and I asked myself: Are these guys Mormons?

Now, I was not fully innocent to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in those days. There are some Mormons hanging out on some of the spindlier branches of my family tree, though I never really knew any of them. Even so, I was a little inexperienced in the logistics of the world. It had never occurred to me that these families who all came to our little rural community at the exact same time might have something in common.

Some of you might have the same thought that everyone does when I talk about this in real life: I didn’t know that Mormons played Dungeons & Dragons. Well, some of them do. That’s your daily takeaway about LDS — and, frankly, it’s about the only thing I learned from that evening, at least initially. But there’s another lesson here, one that I’ve pondered over the years. I’d never met any Mormons in my life, and my first encounter with them wasn’t some seminar or group discussion, but a game.

This was neither the first nor the last time I would interact with people outside of my daily experience over some sort of game. I could well have called this article “Playing Magic: the Gathering with Catholics.” Or “Playing badminton with East Asians.” Or even “Playing Smash Bros. with people from nontraditional families.” Wrack your brain, and I’m sure you can think of examples from your own life in which you first interacted with someone from a different background on a basketball court, in an arcade, or across a poker table.

For all the effort we waste looking for high-minded ways to generate unity, the solution has been right in front of us all along.

Photo by Gian-Luca Riner on Unsplash

We really do underestimate the power of games and sports, or their importance in the human experience. Within groups, they are often praised as bonding activities, an important part of our socialization. More than that, though, games have a power to unite people between groups. Games are universal and require no bond between the parties. They demand nothing other than an implicit understanding between fair-minded competitors.

Consider chess for a moment. Chess is a game from a specific culture, but the rules of chess know no culture — or language, or faith, or color, or sex, or age. Sit down at a coffee shop, set up a chess board, and leave the seat opposite you empty. Given enough time, someone will take that seat — perhaps a stranger, maybe one from a place far removed from where you were born. You don’t need to have anything in common with this stranger except for a fundamental understanding of the game.

This is something I learned firsthand in Jilin province in 2009, when I would occasionally meet a young Chinese art student for a game of chess. He’d acquired a taste for the game while living abroad in Canada and struggled to find anyone among his countrymen who were interested. Of course, I suspect this was for the company as much as anything. He probably wanted a sounding board for his unorthodox theories on how pop culture properties ranging from Tom & Jerry to Warcraft were analogies for contemporary geopolitics.

But then, this too is the magic of the game. By breaking down those cultural barriers, it brings you into contact with kinds of people with whom you might not normally interact. Would I have spent so much time hanging out with Mormons if we didn’t have this in common? Probably not, and the distance wouldn’t have done any of us any good. Indeed, one of the greatest paradoxes of game and sport is that something which has a reputation for bringing out the worst in people — from table flipping to toxic sexism to football riots — also has the potential to bring us together as little else does.

This is something that goes back into the depths of history, to a time before time and a time before war. Many ancient peoples participated in a kind of bloodless ceremonial combat to settle their disputes. This was the birth of sports, and while their stone-age dodgeball was probably quite painful to play, all parties left the field alive. Then some sore loser went and invented weapons, thus depriving us of a world in which international disputes were settled with Street Fighter tournaments.

Scoff if you want, but the only other human artifice that has that same leveling attribute is money. Which one would you rather use to rally the world?

Photo by Clint Bustrillos on Unsplash

Some of you of a nerdier disposition might be wondering how that D&D session with our new Mormon friends turned out. Actually, it wasn’t great.

After being railroaded almost immediately into a dungeon (a place where my tree-dwelling diplomat wasn’t going to be able to do what I designed him to do), we found ourselves in a fight that was far too difficult for us to handle. Our meatshields hit the ground in record time, and in the end, it was just me, my twig-armed bard and the bow he was just barely muscular enough to draw back. Our flustered DM cheated madly on our behalf so that I was able to finish the encounter solo, and after that, we all sagely decided to find something else to do.

Chalk it up to first-time DM’s disease. To the people who spent hours looking at the top half of my face, what I do must seem easy — read what’s in front of you, roll some dice, jot some notes and congratulate the party. It’s not until you’re in that seat that you discover the other skill one needs — the ability to improvise when one’s finely wrought campaign goes hilariously awry. It takes both the ingenuity to dream up subtle ways to keep the party alive in tough times and the sadistic sense of humor to find creative ways to maintain them on the precipice of death the rest of the time.

But no matter — it was certainly memorable, as were all of the other evenings I spent with maladroit DMs in the years that followed. The point in a game like this isn’t really to win, it’s to have an experience with your fellow primates. If you come away with that, you’re winning the greater game.

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Andrew Johnston

Andrew Johnston

Writer of fiction, documentarian, currently stranded in Asia. Learn more at www.findthefabulist.com.